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Just like how we have finally started to talk about Dragonball, we are now finally jumping into one of Japan’s longest-running, and most successful franchises, One Piece. Unlike Dragonball, One Piece has had a fraught story of coming over to the US. On one hand, you had the infamous butchering and hatchet work 4KIDS did to the series despite giving us a fantastic US-made rap song, and then the franchise has struggled to find more footing to get in the spotlight of the busy US anime market. Not that it isn’t successful, but it makes you wonder what would have happened if One Piece had come out around the same time as Dragonball, and not gotten royally butchered, how much stronger One Piece’s US fandom would be? It’s big, since with a franchise that is considered one of if not the top-selling franchise in the manga and anime industry, it’s gonna have a footprint. What’s been a huge bummer though is that while Dragonball and Pokemon have had their films and specials brought over, One Piece hasn’t been given that treatment. Whether it’s because of the botched first US rollout or the typical rights issues, a mass majority of One Piece’s film catalog has been closed off from US fans. Sure, you could go the way of the pirate and search the high seas for fansubbed versions, but you would think by how big the franchise is, Crunchyroll or even Discotek would have brought the films over here. They have been pushing out the more recent films, but accessibility to everything the franchise has to offer would be nice. It has some films that were even directed by famous anime directors like Mamoru Hosoda. Well, at least we are getting the newer films and they are making bank with the newest film in the series, One Piece Film: Red.
The newest adventure is directed by Goro Taniguchi, written by Tsutomu Kuroiwa, and animated by Toei. We are once again following our favorite pirate crew, The Straw Hat Pirates, as we see them stopping by Elegia, an island where a massive concert is happening that has the famous idol/performer named Uta, voiced by Amanda Lee. What happens after a real banger of a first musical number, is that some pirates happen to show up to capture Uta that include some members of the Big Mom Pirates. After revealing that Uta has the power of the sing sing fruit that lets her pull off some amazing powers, Luffy, the leader of the Straw Hat Pirates, dubbed by Colleen Clinkenbeard also reveals that he knows Uta. It’s revealed that Uta and Luffy used to be childhood friends due to Uta being the daughter of Shanks, the infamous leader of the Red Hair Pirates. However, the reunion doesn’t last long as Uta starts to use her powers to bend the entire world’s people to her whim and essentially take all of their souls with her to be in a world that’s nothing but peace and joy. Can Luffy and the gang stop her?
The major appeal of this film is Uta, who is one of the best villains that the franchise has had. Most of the time, villains can come off as unimpressive, depending on when the film’s timeline takes place, as to who’s on Luffy’s crew. Some leave more of an impression than others. On top of a fantastic design, Uta is lively, being an idol in a world of pirates results in some extremely creative world-building of how she becomes an idol/influencer, and the sing sing fruit leads to really cool visuals and powers. While she definitely lands in the realm of “wants to cause the loss of millions of lives because her viewpoint makes her think the plan is in the right”, the additional details of her backstory make her compelling. Giving her a connection to Luffy and being the daughter of Shanks makes her way more complex than just being just another pirate or another disgraced Navy general. The universe of this anime is chock full of memorable villains, and the tragedy of her backstory makes her one of the best villains in the franchise’s history, and that’s saying something due to when this film’s plot may or may not take place in the main storyline. The emotional core that drives the story is between the friendship and clash of ideals between Luffy and Uta, the themes of strained friendships, and how Uta dealt with abandonment and her hatred for pirates. Granted, if you are expecting the Red Hair Pirates to be a major part of the story, well, yes they are, as they show up a couple of times during the first half of the film, but they mostly play important screen roles in the second half of the film. It’s weird how they marketed their appearance when they don’t come into the story properly until much later.
A lot of the runtime is spent on building up Uta and the island’s backstory. There is only one other major player in Uta’s past, but he and a lot of the characters get the bare minimum, which is a shame due to how likable and interesting the characters are. The main Straw Hat crew members get sidelined and are pretty much there to make sure Luffy and Uta are okay. They go around exploring the exact thing up with the world, and find out how and why Uta has all of this immense power. When the navy and the government of the world are put at a standstill, then you know the story has some major stakes. Even if the navy and the government are still portrayed as the major villains as the plot rolls on through. The characters that are from previous story arcs do show up to deliver a splendid addition to the formula, even if some of them only have at best two scenes. Still, this definitely feels like a more cohesive and thrilling story than most franchise films that feel like padded-out filler arcs.
The animation is definitely stellar. While it might look like a fancier version of the show, the franchise’s iconic visual style looks great no matter if you are watching it on the big or small screen. You will never mistake One Piece for any other anime on the market, and as usual, every new film gives the Straw Hat pirates some snazzy new duds and the action set pieces are bombastic even if it gets chaotic on screen. Luckily, the mix of 2D and CGI is handled well and the CGI when used is expressive as it helps that the franchise art style is just bursting at the seams with personality. Even with the addition of influencers and idols into the world of pirates, they still find a way for them to fit and make sense. The voice cast is, as usual, stellar with the returning cast of Colleen Clinkenbeard, Brandon Potter, Christopher Sabat, Luci Christian, Sonny Strait, Eric Vale, Brina Palencia, Stephanie Young, Patrick Seitz, Ian Sinclair, and Daniel Baugh always a delight as the Straw Hats, and Amanda Lee gets all of the points to balance out the happiness, the unhinged, sadness, anger, and every emotion under the rainbow. Doesn’t hurt either that the singing voice for Uta is Ado, and holy cow the musical sequences become the best parts of the overall movie. Each song is different from the last, and they all have individually unique arrangements. They truly are, as the film describes Uta’s music as, “otherworldly”. Something about each song pulls you in and it will not let you go. You have your more pop numbers, but there’s also rock and a sort of metal tune as well. Not to say the rest of the soundtrack suffers compared to the amazing tunes, because Yasutaka Nakata’s ambient tunes aren’t overshadowed, but when the main villain is a pop idol, ya give them the attention.
As usual with these films, there are some flaws. Since the films from this franchise don’t follow the show’s continuity, it’s hard to feel invested at points with some major lore and story beats dropped into this fantastical world that should be super important. They even make some of the elements pseudo-canon in the manga, but trying to find out where this film exactly takes place in the show’s timeline is confusing due to how certain characters show up who really shouldn’t be there. What’s worse is that due to how long this franchise has been going, the crew is going to get bigger and bigger as time goes on, so having these adventures still not in canon with the main timeline is maddening at this point. You can easily find time to fit everything in and it’s not like One Piece’s lore is flimsy, because it’s a complex world filled with political backgrounds of a variety of types and upbringings. It also pads out its time a bit too much as it feels unfocused at times with everyone either finding out what exactly Uta is going to use to make her plans come true or twiddling their thumbs because Uta has control of the situation. It moves at a decent enough pace, but with how many characters there are, some get way more attention than others. There is a reason why most shonen franchise films give the antagonist a big enough team so everyone on the protagonists all have someone to fight.
While a bit bloated in the runtime and suffering from the usual shonen franchise films, One Piece Film Red shows why people love the world of One Piece, and its box office success shows how much people want to see more anime in theaters. I don’t know how many more times the execs need to hear that, but it’s good to see the trend continue of animated films from Japan mostly doing well in theaters. I wish the same people making these franchise films hits in the states would go and see other non-franchise films from Japan or around the world, but that’s an argument for another time. Also, here’s hoping in the future that all the money that these franchise films are making goes to the translators, animators in Japan, scriptwriters, and voice actors that actually deserve more of the praise for bringing these films to life and to other areas of the world and not just the execs. If you love One Piece, you will probably enjoy this film, and it’s always good to support foreign cinema no matter where it pops up. The world of film and animation is diverse, and we could all use something different every once in a while. Next time, we will be talking about Nora Twomey’s newest Cartoon Saloon feature with My Father’s Dragon.
Rating: Go see it!